Flight Plan

Pole position: Now, August 15 is a milestone for Air India too

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on August 21, 2019

On I-Day, the airline flew the first Indian commercial flight over the Polar region

Air India’s Delhi-San Francisco non-stop service on August 15, India’s 73rd Independence Day, created history at 12.27 am — it became the first Indian commercial flight to fly over the Polar region.

The flight did its bit to save the environment and also ensured that the journey between the two cities becomes shorter. Air India flight 173 flew with a full complement of passengers.

“Planning for the flight was a challenge. A number of issues had to be addressed, including solar activity in the polar region and magnetic interference in communication, to name just two,” says Amitabh Singh, Director-Operations, Air India, who was involved in planning the flight.

Flaunt your certificate

All passengers flying on AI 173 on the August 15 flight were given a certificate that recorded the feat — that the passengers travelled on board the Boeing 777-200 Long Range aircraft marking the commencement of Air India’s commercial flights over the North Pole.

Asked why the Polar route is so important, Capt Digvijay Singh, who operated the August 15 departure, says the time saved will range from five minutes to 75 minutes. “We have taken an average of 20 minutes for every Polar flight which, on the Boeing 777, means about 2,500 kg of fuel saving and about 7,500 kg of carbon emission reduction. Passengers benefit because the flight time is shorter. The airline benefits because the fuel cost is lower and the environment benefits because carbon emissions come down,” adds Singh. Currently the flight covers the distance in 15 hours and 45 minutes.

Passengers following the flight path on their television screens could see the aircraft flying close to the North. The cabin crew also made an announcement on the public address system.

The opening of the Polar route will help Air India’s operations to all the five cities in the US that it flies to — New York, Newark, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington DC.

Potentially, the opening of the Polar route could lead to Air India no longer operating the ‘around the world’ flight that it currently plies to reach San Francisco. The Delhi-San Francisco route was launched in 2015.

Tap geographical position

Capt Rajneesh Sharma, one of the two cockpit crew who operated the August 15 flight, puts the new routing in perspective — for the first time, Air India will be able to utilise its geographical position to the optimum. “Geographically, today, we are in a position to utilise the entire planet and get to San Francisco from any direction,” he says, adding that probably Singapore Airlines is the only other airline that covers the same area.

The ‘around the world’ service sees an Air India Boeing 777-200 aircraft taking off from Delhi, heading towards Bangladesh, the northern part of Myanmar into China, South Korea, the Japanese airspace and then the Fukuoka airspace before entering South of Alaska and flying south-east to San Francisco. On the return journey, the flight comes back over Canada and Europe to reach Delhi, thereby going around the globe.

“A decision on whether we should take the ‘around the world’ route or the Polar route will be taken at the time of operating the flight, based on the best route the board computer draws up. But it does open up the possibility of the Polar route being available 365 days a year,” says Capt Sharma. While this was the first flight with passengers, the airline tried using the Polar route when the first of the 68 aircraft that it ordered left the Boeing air base in Seattle on July 27, 12 years ago, with V Thulsidas, the then Chairman and Managing Director, and 50 invited guests on board.

At that time, the aircraft took off from Seattle with 1.28 lakh kilolitre of fuel although only 1.001 lakh kl were consumed when it reached Delhi after flying non-stop for 14 hours and 18 minutes over Canada, the North Pole, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Published on August 21, 2019

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